God has always been in the business of redeeming messes
In the past several years I’ve very often encountered an intense romanticism towards “The Early Church” in Christian circles. New churches are often thought to be on a higher plane if it’s emphasized that they embody The Early Church. Debates over methods are stopped in their tracks once one way is touted to be modelled after The Early Church. There can even be a frustration and discontentment stirred up and expressed when a member feels their local body is not enough like The Early Church.
This bewilders and makes me laugh a bit, because it doesn’t take much reading of Paul’s letters to realize that The Early Church was actually a bit of a mess. Some guy is openly having an affair with what seems to be his stepmom; no one can agree on what they should or shouldn’t be eating and drinking; when they do get together to share communion, some guys are showing up too early, getting drunk on the communion wine and eating all the food so that there’s none left for the latecomers; and Peter, the one tasked with leading this whole thing, wants to be liked by the Church cool kids so he more or less starts ignoring everyone who’s not in that group. Yep, a mess.
Now obviously when people talk about The Early Church in their idealizing, it’s not these aspects they’re referring to. What is admired is the constant devotion to prayer, the selfless love people showed in their communal attitudes and actions, and the radical resolve they held in their commitment to the gospel and its furthering. These are indeed characteristics worthy of admiration. But, as I’ve witnessed in the past, I think if we don’t keep the whole picture in mind, we make ourselves prone to discontentment and blindness to the glory of what Christ is doing in the midst of our local body here and now.
As I was thinking about writing this, initially I thought of calling that very earliest period of the church the “honeymoon period”, but I think that’s perhaps irreverently making light of what was legitimately a time of miraculous outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The fruitfulness and wonder of that period should not be attributed to some frothy emotional fuzziness that the people naively conjured up together; there really was something divine and supernatural at work that bound them together and brought about amazing acts within their midst. Some of us may have had experiences in life that have felt this way – maybe it was as part of a new church plant, some sort of revival, or maybe even personally when we came to faith. Yet as time goes on, we face circumstances and people within the church who contradict all that we thought the Church was meant to be, and the crash back to the plains or even the valleys can be particularly violent, especially if we’ve been up on the mountaintop for quite some time.
Yet what we miss out on when all our energy is being funnelled into our discontentment is the beautiful work God did (and continues to do) in the valleys and everyday plains. Look at all God prompted Paul and the other New Testament writers to write in the midst of the messiness. Look at how we are today guided by the practical wisdom they administered and were forced to think through by their circumstances. Look at how the Church was enriched, how its members grew and matured together – sometimes through difficult lessons – as their faith intersected with the practicalities of everyday life and differing cultural backgrounds. All in the midst of the messiness.
And most of all, look at how the Church still stands today. Look at all the bumps in the road (some of them quite extreme), all the detours we’ve taken, all the wrongs that have had to be made right – even the losses we’ve suffered that have, at the time, seemed unsurmountable. However messy we’ve been, God has always been and always continues to be faithful to His Church, constantly picking her back up, dusting her off, and sanctifying her for the day she is presented to Him as a beautiful and unblemished Bride. Even when we’re frustrated by all that we feel the Church should be and isn’t, we can praise God that even in the bleakest of times, He is not at rest with us, but rather He is working far harder and caring far more than we ever could to craft us into exactly the holy palatial temple He has created us to be.
This doesn’t mean we rest up on our prayers for the Church, nor that we pour water on our passion for seeing the Church beautified for Christ. I’m also not saying we should feel guilty for past times of being discouraged when the Church has acted in ways that are not in her true nature. If we truly love the Body, we will be saddened when she seems to not be doing well or living up to her full potential, much like we would feel that way for a good friend or child. But all of the feelings we hold in this realm can be undergirded by the peace of knowing that the Church is on an eternal timeline, and the small snapshot we are privy to may very well not be representative of her entire journey. More importantly, we can rest in the comfort that God has been on the case from eternity past and will be to eternity ahead; He’s already sealed the victory and the wedding date is set. Whatever prayers we pray, and however we serve, know that the effort is going towards a guaranteed Kingdom in which it all really does work out in the end, and in a way that’s unimaginably more glorious than we can ever imagine with our limited perceptions now.
So when we can’t all agree on what we should and shouldn't do with unforeseen questions and realities our culture presents to us, when we read the Bible or prioritize values differently, when there are people within the church who are on the opposite side of the political spectrum than us, and even when our leaders disappoint us, take comfort in the fact that even our clumsiest and most disappointing failures cannot defeat a victory God has already sealed. These are all trials the Church has faced before, and God has always been mighty, gracious, and faithful to carry us through. Let us not grow weary in doing good and let us not forget to stop praying for our leaders and ourselves, for by God’s grace He can work through these things to make a real difference in others’ lives for eternity. However, when we do these things, let us not be motivated by bitterness or ungraciousness, but rather by confidence in Christ’s work, a zeal for His righteousness to be on display through us, and an eagerness to have our eyes opened to the beautiful things He is acting in and through us today. Through thick and thin, however impossible it may sometimes seem, God really is preparing and beautifying His global and eternal Bride – and we can praise God that He is preparing us individually in that endeavour too.